The line between news and entertainment has become increasingly obscured. The proliferation of media technology in the last 20 years has precipitated a veritable revolution in the ways the news is presented. Mobile phones and dot-com addresses have replaced the printed newspaper and television. These contemporary platforms have foregone the seemingly antiquated structures of the past in favor of stories that are prepackaged in short, entertaining segments. As the distinction between journalism and consumerism blurs, the question of how to appropriately present the news is all the more pertinent. Yet, it is often neglected. Although the information made readily available to the public often favors superficial analysis, consumers, particularly college students, have the power to demand more from the companies crafting the stories we want to know and understand.
Debate over how social media sites are adopted to present news stories arose last week when Al Jazeera and the U.K.’s Channel 4 used Facebook to post a live stream of Iraqi troops and Kurdish fighters descending into Mosul, the northern Iraqi city which has been under Islamic State control since 2014. The sight of emojis — cartoon faces expressing shock and anger, as well as the classic ‘thumbs up’ — fluttering across the Facebook footage was, for many, incongruous with the gravity of such an event.
The use of Facebook Live is certainly an editorial choice driven by the shifting demands of the consumer. Al Jazeera’s live feed of the Mosul assault received more than 875,000 views. For some, features such as Facebook Live are part of a natural evolution of how the media handles the demand for real-time information. In the 1990s, CNN changed the media landscape by broadcasting live audio of bombing raids during the Gulf War. Today, social media platforms like Twitter facilitate sharing both information and images in real time to millions of users. In the case of the Mosul assault, consumers — supporters of this evolution claim — include impressionable, potential sympathizers of the Islamic State. An editorial choice such as Facebook Live then becomes a means of combating the Islamic State’s propagandic narrative that it is undefeatable.
Detractors of this evolution, however, regard Facebook Live and its real-time relatives as evidence of how media platforms that are more committed to entertaining than informing the consumer have overtaken traditional platforms. The demand for not only real-time, but also mobile information has emboldened companies like Facebook and Snapchat to more confidently take on the role of news purveyor. Mobile advertising has grown by a factor of 30, reaching a value of about $32 billion in 2015. Facebook, for example, has strategically responded to the popularity of mobile content by occupying the news niche.
Traditional news sources have responded to the success of Facebook and its counterparts. Evidently, readers want news content that is instantaneous, mobile and entertaining. In an attempt to maintain their audiences, traditional outlets like The New York Times have invested heavily in video content. While the creative opportunities appear boundless, news sources should remember their mission and present stories in a fashion that appropriately fits the topic at hand.
If 90 percent of young adults use social media, then college students can significantly influence how news is presented in the future. As the main consumer audience of companies like Facebook, college students can demand information that is not only entertaining but also intelligent and thoughtful.
Bailee Ahern is a senior majoring in political science and international relations. “’Lend a Hand” runs every Monday.